‘Tensions are very high’: Pandemic pressures heighten safety concerns for city transit drivers

The union representing Edmonton’s transit drivers is applauding the actions of one its drivers following a recent stabbing on a city bus.

On Sunday, a 55-year-old man was stabbed in a random attack at around 8:35 a.m. on a transit bus near 112th Avenue and 95th Street. 

Police said the victim was stabbed after a fellow passenger tried to steal his backpack.  The suspect then fled the scene on foot.

The victim was taken to hospital with non-life-threatening injuries. No arrests have been made.

Steven Bradshaw, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 569 said the pandemic has made the city an anxious place to work for city transit operators. 

Riders are increasingly on edge from the pressures of COVID-19 and it’s leading to difficult confrontations with drivers, Bradshaw said. 

“Tensions are very high out there,” Bradshaw said.

“It’s difficult for people in general, very stressful for operators in particular. These kinds of incidents tend to happen a little bit more when there’s more stress out there.”

Bradshaw commended the driver of the bus for his handling of the incident. Bradshaw said the attack happened at the back of the bus, where the driver has less control.

Bradshaw said the driver called for help over the radio, an operator’s first duty when violence erupts. 

The union reports that assaults on drivers have fallen this year over last, with 80 assaults happening by December 2019, compared to 68 so far in 2020.

Bradshaw attributes the decline to the introduction of plexiglass shields. Even so, he said the general stress of the pandemic has heightened safety concerns for drivers. 

Some difficult confrontations with passengers have happened for drivers this year when they stopped people from boarding a bus without a mask. 

Bradshaw said operators are expected to allow passengers without masks to board, because they shouldn’t be tasked with enforcement.

“It’s a setup for confrontation. It would set up for more assaults. We don’t need that. We don’t want that,” Bradshaw said.

‘It definitely rattled me’

Dayna Burnell, a resident in Edmonton’s Whyte Avenue area said a series of recent encounters has made riding the bus feel unsafe.

Burnell said she was riding a local bus earlier this month after donating blood. On her trip through central Edmonton, she said her driver was accosted twice.

First, a man who was told he couldn’t board the bus without a mask yelled at the driver and kicked the bus, Burnell said.

Another passenger boarded the bus without a mask and grew agitated, yelling at other passengers for following COVID-19 health regulations, Burnell said.

The man then followed Burnell when she got off the bus, she said, continuing to yell at her for believing in COVID-19. Burnell said she was worried she’d be physically assaulted, but eventually the man turned and walked away.

Burnell said she has sympathy for what drivers are experiencing during the pandemic.

She’s now avoiding the bus on her commute, whenever possible.

“I just don’t want to deal with that,” she said. “It definitely rattled me.

“In 11 stops [the bus driver] had to deal with that twice. I can’t imagine what a full day looks like for the driver.”

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